Opponent Look-Ahead: Florida vs. Butler Preview

One of the highlights of Florida’s rigorous non-conference schedule will be a matchup with the Butler Bulldogs, an exciting team from the Big East that is certain to be a tremendous game for the Gators. That game goes December 29th in Gainesville (with a return game on the road next year) but there’s also a chance the Gators see them before that in the Bahamas at the Battle 4 Atlantis. With the Bulldogs not being a regular opponent for the Gators I thought I’d bring in a Butler expert to help me preview the game. For that, I got Lukas Harkins to help me out, a friend who knows the team just about as well as anyone. He’s one of the site experts at Busting Brackets where he churns out an astronomical amount of articles covering the college basketball world on the whole. Here’s my interview with him as we discuss Butler basketball and what we can expect when they match up with the Gators.

EF: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to me Lukas! Can you let everybody know who you are and a bit about yourself?

LH: Well, I am currently a senior in college studying Health and Business at Butler University. I am one of the co-site experts at Busting Brackets, a college basketball site that covers the entire nation. This upcoming season will be my fourth posting articles and bracketology updates throughout the year.

EF: So as you know I have you here to preview the Butler-Florida matchup this season! It’s a game I’m definitely looking forward to as I’ve always loved watching Butler basketball and I really enjoyed watching them last year. Can you give a recap of last season for Butler?

LH: To really put last season in perspective, it is important to look back on the offseason leading into the year. Heading into the season, it was nearly impossible to project just how successful Butler was going to be considering a huge number of losses: head coach Chris Holtmann, Andrew Chrabascz, Tyler Lewis, Avery Woodson, and Kethan Savage. All of these players were going to be very difficult to replace and Holtmann was and still is one of the best coaches in the nation. Despite this, though, new head coach LaVall Jordan put together a strong campaign behind a dynamic scoring duo of Kamar Baldwin and Kelan Martin. Butler made the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive occasion and the 10th time in 12 years. In my opinion, the biggest “highs” for the team were a massive comeback win over Ohio State in the PK80 Tournament, knocking off Villanova at home, and reaching the Round of 32 once again.

EF: I was going to ask you about the coaching change that happened before last season. I want your honest opinion here, but you can lie and I’ll never know (laughs), at the time of the LaVall Jordan hire were you a fan of the decision, and what do you think of the hire now? For those reading this who weren’t aware of the situation, Jordan only had one year of coaching experience under his belt, a 11-24 season with Milwaukee, but he played at Butler and was an assistant there from 2003-2007.

LH: He was my first choice from the jump. Actually, that is still one of my favorite Twitter accomplishments as I pegged him as the most-likely selection a few days before he was hired, and I have receipts. He fit exactly what Butler was looking for in a head coach and seems to be the kind of guy who will stick around for a number of years. Butler fans have grown accustomed to coaching changes during the 21st century but the hope is that Coach Jordan will stick around for a long time. I am from Wisconsin and therefore closely followed his first season as a head coach. The record may look poor on paper but he motivated that team to the Horizon League Tournament final despite being the lowest seed. Additionally, he had plenty of experience with the Butler program, as you mentioned, as a player and a coach. I was a fan of the decision then and I am still a fan of the decision now.

EF: That’s great you had him picked to be the guy, and I think the people that doubted the decision at the time will have definitely changed their minds after that first season. Now that you’ve gotten to see him as a head coach at Milwaukee and then at Butler, how would you describe his coaching style?

LH: Due to the fact that he has only spent one season at Butler, and only had one at Milwaukee, I’m not sure we have seen the entirety of his coaching style yet. He has inherited a lot of his players from other coaches to this point, by nature of only one season at each school, and I think he has tailored his coaching a bit to those situations. Based on his time as an assistant at Michigan, he is known to be successful at developing guards and he also puts a fair amount of emphasis on defensive intensity. Having said this, I think he is a strong motivator, teacher, and Butler could become a consistently strong defensive team down the road. Also, he has already shown promise as a head coach, as he was quite successful as an assistant, on the recruiting trail by nailing a couple of solid recruits in quick succession earlier this offseason.

EF: One thing that didn’t change at all with the transition from Holtmann to Jordan was the way the team scored as they’ve been in the top 25 in offensive efficiency for the past three years. How has the team been so effective scoring the ball in recent history and do you see the Bulldogs being equally as deadly offensively this season?

LH: It helps to have one or two guys that simply go get their own bucket consistently. And with Kellen Dunham, Kelan Martin, and Kamar Baldwin running the show for the past few seasons, the Bulldogs have had no trouble filling up the basket. Additionally, I think Butler has done a nice job placing shooters on the perimeter. Avery Woodson was an excellent addition for 2016-17 and Paul Jorgensen and Sean McDermott played major roles last season and should do the same this year. While obviously losing Martin is a huge blow to the offense heading into this year, Baldwin averaged nearly 17 points per game in conference play last year and the previously mentioned shooters Jorgensen and McDermott, as well as highly efficient big man Nate Fowler, could average in double-figures this year. Defensively, it will all start with Butler’s backcourt this season. Baldwin, while mainly known as one of the better scorers in the Big East, might just be the best perimeter defender in the conference now that Creighton’s Khyri Thomas is in the NBA. Additionally, his running mate Aaron Thompson, who will be a sophomore this season, is an excellent defender as well. With those two on the floor, and a quality reserve defender in Henry Baddley, opposing backcourts will have a really tough time scoring this year.

EF: Kamar Baldwin is definitely going to be the first name most people think about when they hear Butler basketball this season, but who do you think a breakout player could be?

LH: Sean McDermott. One of the most efficient players in the entire country last season, McDermott averaged 7.5 points per game while shooting 43.1% from distance, 67.9% inside the arc, and 81.8% from the charity stripe. He might not be that efficient this year but he will be a focal point of the offense for long stretches and a double-digit points per game season seems likely heading into the year. He is improving as a finisher around the basket and his shot chart is glorious. I believe he attempted over 95% of his total shots last season either at the rim or from 3-point range. At 6-foot-6 with a quick release, he is the man to watch in my opinion.

EF: We’ll be sure to watch out for him! I’m not sure how much you know about Florida going into this year but how do you think Butler matches up with them?

LH: I think Butler’s biggest weakness on paper heading into this season might be interior defense. Tyler Wideman was an integral part of rotation for the past few seasons and even though his per game numbers were not gaudy, his impact was consistent. Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk are bigger bodies who are both 6-foot-10 or over but might not be as strong defensively. Florida, who has a really deep frontcourt, could take advantage of this for several early buckets before an adjustment might need to be made. On the flip side, though, Butler’s defensive guards could force some turnovers out of Florida’s young backcourt. As much as I love the potential of players like Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke, Butler could be a very difficult matchup in that part of the game. The key matchup for me will be watching Jalen Hudson vs. Sean McDermott and Jordan Tucker, who will be eligible in mid-December.

EF: The front court battle will be interesting to watch because I have high expectations for Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson but they are young and unproven, though the veteran Keith Stone should give some great production up there. After you talked about the defense of Butler’s backcourt I’m definitely interested to see how the freshman Nembhard can do against them. Now, Jordan Tucker is an interesting story. Can you tell people about him and also tell us what you expect from him when he is eligible?

LH: Jordan Tucker can flat-out score the basketball. At 6-foot-7 with a deadly perimeter jumper, it is clear to see why many are excited about his future in a Butler uniform. A top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, Tucker played 13 minutes for Duke last season before electing to transfer to Butler. Due to the nature of transferring mid-season, he will not be eligible to play for the Bulldogs until the conclusion of the first semester in mid-December. This means that he will be eligible for the late non-conference matchup between Florida and Butler but would not be if the teams were to meet in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Although Tucker has limited collegiate experience to this point, many are expecting him to immediately come in and fill up the basket. I have tempered my expectations a bit in regards to JT because I hope that he will be able to be slowly integrated into the rotation due to the presence of players like McDermott, Henry Baddley, and Christian David. Still, he projects as a strong scorer who can fill it up from beyond the arc. If he is aggressive and confident in seeking out his own shot and attacking the basket, he could be special right away. He has 2.5 years of eligibility remaining.

EF: I’m definitely interested to get a look at him so I’m glad he’ll be eligible when Butler and Florida play. What are your expectations from Butler this upcoming year both as it relates to the Big East and also the NCAA Tournament?

LH: At this point, the expectation for Butler is to reach the NCAA Tournament every single season. The program has been remarkably consistent over the last 10+ years and although the Bulldogs might not go dancing every year, it is a realistic expectation for the team year in and year out. In regards to this season, an NCAA Tournament bid is likely, in my opinion. Even without Martin and Wideman, the roster is quite strong and should compete in the upper-half of the Big East. Aaron Thompson will be able to play to his strengths offensively this year, KB is an all-around stud, Jorgensen will get his 10+ per game, and McDermott/Tucker will score in bunches as well. Additionally, Nate Fowler is an offensive upgrade at center with his versatile scoring both inside and out at 6-foot-10. The offense should be balanced behind the leader in Baldwin and the team should be quite strong defensively. I see Butler as a top-5 team in the Big East and somewhere between 20-35 in the nation.

EF: Butler seemed to be a lot better than their 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament indicated they were as they crushed Arkansas in the first round and then played Purdue right down to the wire. KenPom had them as a top-20 team but their record didn’t justify a better seed, largely due to a lot of close losses where they were just outplayed in the clutch. Why do you think they had some trouble closing games last year and how do you think they can improve in that area? Do you think they were just unlucky?

LH: The seeding for the Big East last year was really odd due to the fact that so many teams were in the 8/9 range and they could not play each other in the first game. According to the straight 1-68 list from the selection committee, I think Butler was supposed to be the second-best 9 seed but got relegated to a 10 seed due to conflicts. In terms of some close losses, I think this had more to do with poor play in the first half of games. On a few occasions, most notably against Ohio State, Georgetown, and Xavier, the team started out slow and made huge comebacks to make those conclusions competitive. Butler ended up 2-1 in those games but slow starts were an issue throughout the year. Of course, there were a couple of losses, Seton Hall and St. John’s notably, that could have been prevented with stronger play down the stretch but those games just happen sometimes to everyone. In terms of improvement, I think the play of sophomore point guard Aaron Thompson will be huge. Although an elite defender, Thompson was a liability offensive at times last season due to the inability to knock down jumpers or foul shots and the fact that he had to play off-ball a lot due to KB and Martin. Butler, on the whole, was an outstanding free throw shooting team last season but he really struggled. With a whole year of experience and offseason of training under his belt, Thompson should be improved offensively to the point where he can stay on the floor in crunch time for his defense.

EF: Very good stuff Lukas, thank you so much for your time and your insight in Butler basketball! I was already really excited for this game and now I’m even more pumped. Tell everyone once again where they can follow your work.

LH: For in-game notes and random bursts of gifs and horrible puns, you can follow me on Twitter at @hardwiredsports and you can find all of my college basketball articles, typically one per day, at Busting Brackets.

EF: Thanks so much man! I’m looking forward to talking lots of college basketball with you this season and I might have to do a recap with you after the Florida-Butler game!

LH: Or games! Thanks for inviting me to help out!